As unsuspecting ticket holders streamed into the Staples Center on Grammy night, they were greeted by blaring hip-hop tracks and prominent signage announcing the launch of iHeartMedia’s Real 92.3, “the new home of hip-hop and R&B for Los Angeles.” But the launch also triggered something else: a new chapter in the turf war between iHeartMedia, which owns more than 800 stations, and rival 23-station radio chain Emmis.
Standing squarely in the middle of the battle is Marconi Award-winning air personality Kurt “Big Boy” Alexander, 45. As morning host of Emmis’ KPWR (Power 106), his relationship with the company goes back 20 years. KPWR ruled as the market’s leading contemporary rhythmic station until iHeartMedia muscled in by rebranding oldies outlet KHHT (Hot 92.3) as Real 92.3 on Feb. 6.
Under contract to Emmis through Feb. 28, Alexander was offered $3.5 million by iHeartMedia to join KHHT. But under the terms of his agreement with Emmis, he is bound to enter a new and exclusive contract with the company if it provides terms that are “substantially similar” to a competitor’s offer. Emmis claims Alexander refused its counteroffer, and then filed a breach-of-contract suit against him for not less than $5 million in damages on Feb. 3 and also sought preliminary and permanent injunctions barring him from joining iHeartMedia. Los Angeles County Superior Court granted Emmis a temporary restraining order on Feb. 10; a further hearing is scheduled for March 3.
In response to the temporary restraining order, Emmis stated, “We look forward to continuing to make our case to protect Emmis and our rights under our employment agreement with Big Boy.” Until the March 3 hearing, Emmis executives aren’t commenting further. And neither is Big Boy, who sent fans a message via Instagram: “Real talk. I MEAN IT! When I can speak, I will speak to YOU. I’m crushed and I do care for you guys…”
Doc Wynter, iHeartMedia’s senior VP of urban programming and Real 92.3’s program director, declined to comment on the Big Boy situation as well. But he does point to an urban void in L.A. “There was an opportunity here for true hip-hop lovers; to grow some shares with a radio station that played current, recurrent and gold hip-hop and R&B,” he says.
The Emmis and iHeartMedia standoff in Los Angeles echoes the heated rivalry between the two companies in the nation’s No. 1 radio market, New York. Emmis’ East Coast flagship and hip-hop radio pioneer Hot 97 (WQHT) has been losing ground in the last year to iHeartMedia’s Power 105.1 (WWPR), whose airstaff as of last year now includes former Hot 97 mainstay Angie Martinez.
In lieu of an airstaff, KHHT is in the midst of playing 10,000 songs in a row, commercial-free. Wynter estimates that the run will take the station through early March, noting, “I’m judiciously taking my time putting a staff together that will be reflective of the brand we’re trying to put across. But if we go to 10,100 joints in a row, I’m not going to be mad.”
This article first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of Billboard.